Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Copyright Comeuppance

It’s not nice to re-use what someone else creates—in fact, it’s illegal. That applies to writings, songs and their performance, artwork, a broad range. Without going into a lot of technical, legal stuff, the basic idea is that creativity is protected by copyright law, and bad guys have to pay.

Even if you cannot prove the bad guy’s profits or your own losses, when someone copies your work the damages are still from $750 to $30,000 plus possible attorney’s fees. If you can prove your losses, the damages may be much higher.

Some interesting recent cases from the world of popular music illustrate. A song called The Lion Sleeps Tonight was written by a fellow in South Africa about 1940. It was sung on recording by a large number of singers and bands, including in the US, but he never got a dime. He is now gone, but his daughters recently signed a settlement by which they will get unspecified millions of dollars in damages and future royalties, and that is only for copyright infringement in Africa. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5300359.

A 1990 NWA song “100 Miles and Runnin’” sampled a three-note guitar riff from a 1975 Funkadelics song called “Get Off Your Ass and Jam. A federal appeals court headquartered in Cincinnati and covering the Midwest said the law protects even such small samples. http://www.ivanhoffman.com/fairusemusic.html

The Ohio Players 1971 song "Singing In the Morning" was illegally sampled in Notorious B.I.G.’s first album, “Ready to Die,” according to a March 2006 jury verdict. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ready_to_Die

In January a court decided that the 1950s doo-wop band The Flamingos’ recording, "I Only Have Eyes For You" was used in a commercial without permission. A jury issued a $250,000 verdict against PepsiCo, Inc. http://www.wqad.com/Global/story.asp?S=4434930&nav=menu132_7_1_1

Given this recent trend, and the excitement it will be generating among bands, former band members, and their attorneys, it seems likely potential defendants will be starting to negotiate settlements instead of risking court trials and the expense of defending them.